The False Promise of Understanding Yourself
For most of my life, I was obsessed with the idea of understanding myself. I daydreamed, journaled, and had endless, meandering conversations with friends, trying to get to the bottom of who we were. I devoured autobiography and memoir, as if seeing how others understood themselves could help me do the same. I tried meditation, therapy, psychedelics, and all the other things seekers try. Occasionally, some of this stuff even worked.
My quest for self-knowledge was instinctive, not logical. It wasn’t the means to any intentional, articulated end; it was just something I did because I had a deeply-held intuition that it was valuable. Or not just valuable—essential. Are you really living a full life, I thought, if understanding yourself isn’t a priority?
I’m not so sure anymore.
The concept of self-knowledge is actually a much more recent invention than most people think. When people cite supposed quotes about self-knowledge from ancient times, they are usually either misunderstanding or misinterpreting them. Take “know thyself,” famously inscribed at the Oracle of Delphi in Ancient Greece. In its time, it wouldn’t have meant to know yourself the way we think of it today. It would have meant something much more like “know thy place”: to understand your role in the divine order of things, and to accept that the direction of your life was largely in fate’s control. Similarly, Socrates’ famous quip that “the unexamined life is not worth living” referred not to navel-gazing examinations of one’s personal life, but rather to deep inquiry into the nature of life in general—in other words, to doing philosophy.
Our modern understanding of self-knowledge only arose during the Enlightenment, in the 1600s—Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, basically created the form as a way to talk about himself—where it evolved hand in hand with the spread of literacy, as the kind of abstract thought enabled by writing was necessary for the deep level of self-inquiry favored by Enlightenment authors.
But it remained a primarily elite phenomenon until Freud and the advent of psychoanalysis at the turn of the 20th century. Now there was a whole new area of ourselves to understand: the unconscious, where our hidden dreams and desires lived. Only by surfacing them could we become who we truly wanted to be. In popular culture, this idea reached its oversimplified apotheosis in the “trauma plot,” a now-widespread trope in which a single traumatic event in a character’s past is presented as the overarching explanation for why they are the way they are. Like the Bechdel test, the trauma plot is everywhere once you learn to see it, afflicting characters as varied as Batman, Snape, and Fleabag.
This reliance on psychological backstory was a revolution in fiction. The central villain in Hamlet—Claudius, Hamlet’s conniving, murderous uncle—simply is that way. But if Shakespeare was writing today, he’d almost certainly concoct a tragic past to explain Claudius’ malevolence.
But back to me.
Like I said, for most of my life I couldn’t have consciously articulated why I thought my pursuit of self-knowledge was important. But looking back, I think it was driven by three core beliefs:
Understanding yourself is the best path to self-acceptance.
Understanding yourself is the best path to change.
Understanding yourself is actually possible if you try hard enough.
These days, I think all three of these beliefs are at least somewhat suspect.
Understanding isn’t a prerequisite for acceptance—in fact, sometimes it’s counterproductive.
Psychological health requires self-acceptance and self-compassion, both of which are hard to achieve for many people, myself very much included. It’s tempting to think that to truly accept yourself, you need to first understand why you are the way you are. But not only is understanding not necessary for acceptance, in some ways I think it actually sits in opposition to acceptance. When you search for an explanation for why a certain attribute of your character came to be, you’re sort of saying that the “true” you doesn’t have that attribute—you’re only like that because some other thing made you that way.
This line of thinking is easily recognizable as flawed at its extremes, for example, as in the kind of person who blames everything in their life on something that happened to them that was outside their control. But even people who aren’t like that sometimes fail to see that true self-acceptance means accepting yourself regardless of why you are the way you are.
Understanding isn’t a prerequisite for change.
Self-acceptance doesn’t mean you stop trying to improve yourself. Paradoxically, the opposite is actually true. As the psychologist Carl Rogers put it, “Once I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
I won’t deny that understanding why you display certain patterns of behavior can sometimes be helpful in breaking out of them—we’ve all known someone who, say, started having healthier relationships once they realized they were unconsciously reenacting their parents’ toxic dynamic. But I do think that understanding is, on the margin at least, overrated. If you can relatively easily figure out the underlying explanation for a negative behavioral pattern, then by all means, go for it. But you don’t need to. Sometimes, the search for understanding is just a distraction—or even worse, a justification. In my college years, I often told myself that my winking self-awareness about many of my negative traits transformed them from exasperating to charming. I was, obviously, super wrong.
Going to the gym works even if you don’t know how or why you got so out of shape in the first place. The same is true for working on your mind. When I stopped searching for deep explanations and just started trying to make steady, incremental changes in my life, the whole project got a lot easier.
It’s like that old joke about that guy who goes to the doctor and says, “Hey doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor says: “Then just don’t do that.”
True self-knowledge is an illusion anyway.
Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Another word for stories is lies.
Re-reading my old journals, one thing that stands out is how inaccurate most of my supposed self-knowledge always turns out to be. I’ll think I’ve understood something, then later realize I was wrong, but think this time I really understand, and so on and so on into infinity. We are so good at lying to ourselves that when we search for self-knowledge, it’s hard to know whether we’re really getting to a level of understanding, or just creating increasingly complex edifices of self-deception.
The traditional conception of self-knowledge is internal bordering on solipsistic: you go deep within your own mind, on your own or maybe with a professional. But true self-knowledge (or at least, as close to true as you can get) comes from relationships with others.
Growing up I occasionally heard the tale of the Maine hermit, a man who supposedly renounced human society and lived alone for decades in the woods of Central Maine, sneaking into people’s homes in the dead of the night and stealing only as much food as he needed. Many thought this story was just a rumor—until, in 2013, he was apprehended.
The hermit (whose real name was Christopher Knight) revealed that other than briefly saying hello to a passing hiker in the nineties, he hadn’t spoken to or interacted with another human being for the 27 years preceding his arrest. Of the many fascinating details of his experience, one stands out: after decades of isolation, he reported, his sense of self almost completely disappeared. He became more like an animal, operating on instinct and in deep harmony with his environment. In other words, you are only “you” in relation to other people. So any strategy of self-understanding that’s overly internal is bound to fall short.
The Buddhists know this, which is why their recipe for inner peace involves going in the opposite direction entirely, stripping away the ego and the layers of cruft we think of as our “selves.” When you practice vipassana meditation, you pay deep attention to the most subtle bodily sensations, like the breath in your nostrils, which, to the extent that anything can be said to be truly real, is much more real than your thoughts are. This too is a form of understanding yourself, I suppose, but in a very different way. The Western idea of self-knowledge implicitly aims for mastery over the self; the Eastern version aims for something more like surrender.
Lest this essay be misunderstood, I’m not saying that all attempts at self-understanding are pointless or counterproductive. I’ve no doubt benefited greatly from my own quest for self-knowledge, as fruitless as much of it has been. But the idea that such self-knowledge is important is pretty baked into our current society, and I think we might all benefit from turning the dial back just a bit. A little goes a long way.
Sam Harris once said, about smoking weed, that everyone he knows who smokes weed would benefit from smoking less, and everyone he knows who doesn’t smoke weed would benefit from smoking more. I feel the same way about the pursuit of self-knowledge. If you’ve never looked within, you should probably start. But if you look within all the time, maybe you should try picking your head up and looking around instead.